Against strategic voting


Elizabeth May could perhaps use reinforcements, so the leader of the Ontario Greens makes the argument with more verve than she has managed: even if your Green vote was the one that ensured a Harper re-election, you should still vote Green.

I just can’t help wondering whether, if the case were put that starkly, May would agree. Certainly John Barber, the Globe columnist who thought it unconscionable that New Democrats might prefer their own party to the Liberals, would not like what Frank de Jong argues here.


Against strategic voting

  1. I don’t think May would agree with that statement at all because, how I read it, De Jong comes down on the Libs the hardest. NDP and Cons might be misguided, but they have core values, but Libs will say one thing but govern in another way.

    De Jong makes a good point that each vote is money in the bank for the party and that is a significant reason to not vote for others.

    I think the Green Party is about to have a major reckoning when the election is over. I don’t believe May has strong ties to the party, but was heavily involved in environment issues, and there must be a lot of diehards who are questioning May’s leadership/strategy.

  2. Maybe it’s just because I’m a grumpy Green supporter, but can I take a second to point out how vacuous the entire concept of “strategic voting” is?

    Each of us have exactly one vote.. well, maybe 3 or 4 votes if we can bully our kids into voting the same way as us.

    During the 2006 election, here were the closest 10 ridings:

    Parry Sound—Muskoka – 28 votes
    Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River – 73 votes
    Winnipeg South – 111 votes
    Glengarry—Prescott—Russell – 203 votes
    Louis-Hébert – 231 votes
    St. Catharines – 244 votes
    Tobique—Mactaquac – 254 votes
    Thunder Bay—Superior North – 408 votes
    West Nova – 511 votes
    Brant – 582 votes

    So if you lived in any of these ridings and voted ‘strategically’ you would have changed the outcome in exactly none of them.

    So in the current election, a voter in a battleground riding such as London West needs to decide if she’ll vote with her heart of vote ‘strategically’ so that the margin of victory goes from, say, 1327 votes to 1326.

    I can’t believe anyone would vote against their conscience in order to cast a vote that will make zero difference in the final outcome of the election. But since we live in an society of innumerate individuals who buy both insurance and lottery tickets, I guess it should come as no surprise.

  3. Strategic voting is rather poorly named, for the reason that it is not strategic, but actually rather stupid.

    Voting has essentially two purposes – it is
    1. Expressive: we vote to send a message to government about what we want and don’t want them to do (we express our beliefs).
    2. Tactical: we vote to affect the outcome of an election.

    Strategic voters need to ask themselves: what are the chances that an election will be decided by one vote? Virtually nil. Secondly, if voters want to avoid another term for Harper they need to ask: what are the chances that my riding will be decided by one vote AND my riding will make the difference between a Harper government and a Dion government (or a Harper majority vs. a Harper minority)? Virtually nil times highly improbable. It is the voting equivalent of expecting you will win the lottery and be hit by lightning while claiming your prize.

    Expressive voting, however, IS both good for the soul AND of greater tactical benefit to individuals. First, you make good for your karma and vote for what you actually support. Secondly, and more importantly, parties take notice of how you vote because you are a statistic (and an increasingly specific statistic, the more we micro-target). What are the chances your vote might increase your parties losing share in the riding to a psychologically higher plane? What are your chances of being in the federal election survey? What are your chances of being polled (being polled is like having 30,000 votes)?

    So when parties collect that information, they only care about one thing as a dependent variable: who did you vote for (or who will you vote for). So the Liberals might conclude from their years of victory that left-leaning students support their Afghanistan policy, or education policy, etc. That is probably why the Liberals have decided camapigning to the left and governing to the right works – because strategic voters make it work.

    I suppose a final point is that encouraging strategic voting is almost always self-interested, but rarely effective. The problem is uncertainty – polls are bad enough gauges of national elections, but they are even worse at providing guesses at the riding level. Yet, people are listening to voteforenvironment.ca (which is run by Liberals, and advises a vote for May, although I have seen polls with Lorefice in second) based on supposed .5% differences between say, the NDP or Liberals in a riding.

    And that’s assuming folks have any information at all. In BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and car-belt Ontario the NDP is the party most likely to beat the Conservatives. In Toronto, most of the competitions are NDP-Liberal anyhow. Strategic voting is a perfect example of how thinking globally and acting locally isn’t always the best way to get the outcomes you really want.

  4. Mike: Given that logic, there’s no reason for anybody to vote for anyone but the incumbant. After all, none of the votes for any of the candidates that didn’t get in mattered one bit.

    Every single vote is a raindrop. Individually, they mean nothing, but together they can change the political landscape.

    And besides, if what your conscience is saying is, “I like these guys, but I dislike those guys even more” then not strategic voting is actually voting against your conscience.

  5. You can only ever vote FOR someone.

    Realistically it cant be read any other way.

    Now if coyne were reading this we would get an Ode to PR….we may get one anyway after the election is done.

    Personally, I think de Jong is correct, now that there ismoney attached to it then for parties like the Greens it is that much more important to help the movement grow.

  6. “Mike: Given that logic, there’s no reason for anybody to vote for anyone but the incumbant. After all, none of the votes for any of the candidates that didn’t get in mattered one bit.”

    WRONG. There is that happy feeling that you made a decision to support somebody you believed in regardless of the odds. Plus, there is always uncertainty about outcomes.

    “And besides, if what your conscience is saying is, “I like these guys, but I dislike those guys even more” then not strategic voting is actually voting against your conscience.”

    That is a different kettle of fish. I like Stephen Harper, but I also dislike Gerard Kennedy a LOT. I felt voting for Peggy Nash was the bigger slap in Gerard Kennedy’s face. It is irrational, but it still feels good (also it is less irrational because my vote is more likely to matter in a riding than to affect the outcome for the whole country).

    DR, I agree fully. Vote Conservative!

  7. “Mike: Given that logic, there’s no reason for anybody to vote for anyone but the incumbant.”

    Uhh.. no.. given that logic, there’s no reason to vote for *anyone*. Why do I care if the incumbent wins by 1327 votes of 1326?

    Voting with the intention to change the outcome of the election is totally irrational behaviour.

    But there are other reasons to vote other than to simply change the outcome.

    I vote for the Greens for the same reason I go to London Knights games; to enjoy the event and to cheer my team on. I don’t actually expect my attendance at Knights game to increase their odds of beating the Spitfires… in the same way I shouldn’t expect my vote to alter the outcome of the election.

  8. Look. I can vote any damned way I please. It’s my vote. If I want to vote for somebody who’s probably going to lose, just to make a point, I can do it. If I want to try to help the most competitive candidate against the candidate I hate, I can do that too. Nobody owns my vote. If you want it, you have to earn it.

  9. Isn’t every vote “strategic”? I think most people in recent elections vote defensively, because they often don’t have an ideal candidate they are FOR.

  10. You know, it would be a lot simpler, and probably more effective, if we all just vote for the most competent candidate in our riding. At least that way whoever ends up as Prime Minister will have a bunch of competent people on his team. Additionally, if all sides are equally competent, maybe respect and decorum might return to the House.

    But ultimately, Doug is right.

  11. This is a really refreshing thing to read, more reasonable and honest about Liberal scare tactics and the reality of civic participation than most discussions about strategic voting. I’d also add that strategic voting has perverse outcomes in some ridings. For example, the tight race in Thunder Bay was between the NDP and the Liberals, with the NDP winning. Swinging NDP voters to the Liberals wouldn’t do anything to stop the Conservatives, although it clearly benefits the Liberals. Hamilton East was another tight race between the NDP and the Liberals. Similarly, in Central Nova where May is now running as the joint Green-Liberal candidate, it was the NDP who came closest to unseating MacKay (not very close, but if the Liberals threw their votes to the NDP it would have made the difference). Finally, in downtown Toronto, where this strategic voting talk seems to have a lot of life, if there’s a battle, it’s between the NDP and the Liberals. When Dion starts campaigning under the slogan “a vote for Layton will save only one job: Stephen Harper’s”, he’s gunning for these seats…

  12. I’m involved with GPO as much as GPC, and finished second in the recent GPO Male Deputy Leader race. (Don’t ask.)

    Frank De Jong has been GPO leader for a long time and this may be the first time he’s ever stepped over the fence and commented on GPC matters. THAT’s how important it is..

    I agree with everything he says, especially the comments about how Conservative voters are not winnable by Greens if we have a huge “hate” on for Harper.

  13. I thought Harper had promised some democratic reform. I guess he meant next time, or only if he got a majority….

  14. Here goes tiredness and impatience again…

    kontrol asks; “Isn’t every vote “strategic”?”

    As a voter, I hope so. What is different this time is a kind of anger or fear that courses through the guts of people I know and you know. It IS a game changer.

    We all want peace, order and good government.

    Can Stephen Harper deliver?

    Most people I know doubt it.

    For two and one-half years he has made governance a cartoon.

    Our country remains stronger than some–but not because Harper has made it so.

    On the contrary, so far he has weakened it.

    How can any thinking voter want more of his version of governance?

    –copyright Conservative Party of Canada

  15. kontrol:

    I think his version of democratic reform involved insulting the Senate at every turn and appointing Michael Fortier.

    I respect Dion because he’s as “un-politician” as they come and has repeatedly called for an end to our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system that ferments the entire “strategic voting” and “vote splitting” issue.

    We need fairness. We need parties that work together instead of attack one another.

  16. That the Greens are debating whether or not to urge their voters to vote for SOMEBODY ELSE is interesting.

    If voting Green is an obstacle to getting Green things done, then why does the Green Party exist?

    We have gone through an election where Canadians have very politely given the Greens lots of visibility and consideration and they have not once argued they should exist. They have only cosmetic differences with the other lefty parties. And voting Green just to be anti-Tory is extremely inefficient.

    So, the Green vote is going to tank on Tuesday and the party will be at the fringes again. That’s Elizabeth May.

  17. Looking through the 2006 results, I only found 21 seats that were won by less than 1,000 votes. Only 4 of those were taken by the Conservatives over the Liberals. Another 8 were Liberals edging out Conservatives. With 308 ridings, this suggests that the importance of strategic voting is a bit over-played.

    I’d be interested in finding out how many of the “Anyone but Harper” advocacy organizations (e.g. voteforenvironment; Code Blue) have close ties to the Liberals. Certainly, Dion is attacking the Greens and the New Democrats as side-shows in this election (voting for them is voting for Stephen Harper). It’s a classic Liberal tactic: demonize the Conservatives, present yourself as the only ones who can stop them, steal some votes from the other parties. When 70 to 80% of Canadians don’t want to vote for you, I guess the best strategy is to ask them to support you as a way to vote against the other guy…As others have said, this detracts from political debate in this country.

  18. Dion supports the end of first past the post? This will come as a bit of a shock to the urban legal establishment which runs the Liberal party as their preferred conduit into the public trough; is this man more suicidal than previously imagined?

    The word you seek is foment, pea brain.

  19. “I agree with everything he says, especially the comments about how Conservative voters are not winnable by Greens if we have a huge “hate” on for Harper.”

    You see that’s why the Green Party of Ontario matters – they offer policy alternatives to the other parties (for instance, their opposition to funding religious schools, and their greater acceptance of eco-capitalists). I am less clear on how Elizabeth May offers much that is distinct from the other major parties (and apparently she agrees with me on that point).

  20. Speaking of Liberal tactics – check out Taber’s article at the Globe and Mail from 7:50 this evening. A raft of unnamed Liberal sources predicting the Liberals will fall at least by 15 seats and paragraphs of quotes from Dion saying how voting Green or New Democrat is bound to return a Harper government, possibly even a majority…Oh noes, anonymous Liberal sources say Canada could be over-run by safety-net slashing Republicans if I vote New Democrat, oh noes oh noes…

  21. Stephane Dion has expressed support (August 2008) for alternative vote (preferential balloting). I quite like the system when compared to FPTP (no need to vote strategically, the best vote is your honest preference; no vote-splitting between similar parties) and proportional representation (no strong party control; local representation and accountability). It doesn’t deliver true proportionality, but tends to reward moderate parties over more extreme ideological points of view. Not delivering proportionality might be a good thing, as a party could likely achieve majorities still, so long as they had a healthy level of first and second preference support.

  22. I like how, at the end, he pretty much agrees with Stephen Harper’s opinion of the institutional power structure in Ottawa, circa 2006. I guess Harper wasn’t quite as paranoid as everyone made him out to be.

  23. My preferred system is approval voting – give people an infinite number of votes, such that they can check off all the candidates they approve of. This is much simpler than a ranked preference system, but accomplishes the same outcome: giving people choice, producing pareto optimal governments (the least objectionable for the most people), and strong/stable governments. It also eliminates the strategic voting dilemma, because you can pick both your favourite, and your lesser-of-two-evils party.

    My main problem with PR is that parties in PR elections aren’t really running on actual platforms. In a perpetual minority government situation, the agenda of the government is negotiated after the election, so voters can’t really choose between party programmes, rather, they are choosing between who they want to negotiate the course the nation will take. Of course, FPTP may also result in that outcome at the present in Canada – hence my preference for approval voting.

  24. Peter, thanks for the ad hominem.

    Much obliged!

  25. Style says: “When 70 to 80% of Canadians don’t want to vote for you, I guess the best strategy is to ask them to support you as a way to vote against the other guy…”

    Following in your footsteps then we can say 85 to 91% don’t want to vote for the Greens. How does that float your boat?

    In that light suddenly it seems logical to consider using those votes to influence a better electoral outcome than allowing a party and leader which have for years fought against even recognizing climate change as an issue, and are acting as if they never plan to address the problem.

    Here’s the real problem with Harper. He is systematically dismantling the ability of the federal government to do anything on a broad national scale by reducing its fiscal capacity. Every big tax cut and little tax give away whittles down Canada’s future ability – regardless of who is in power – to do anything meaningful.

    Harper in a minority can do this. He’s not gone all populist on us just for electoral reasons – he’s doing it because giving tax dollars back to people (and corporations) is hard to fight against. It doesn’t sell.

    In the future Canada won’t be a headwaiter to the provinces because there’ll be nothing on the menu.

    I happen to believe that we’ll face great challenges as a nation that require us to act as one nation.

    Harper simply believes that its ok to have as a result 10 little Canada’s with their own destinies instead of a shared future for all in one big Canada.

    Environmentalists betting on a minority government hobbling Harper are living in a dream world. You’d think they’d already have realised that by now, but apparently not.

    Bottom line: If Harper regains control of parliament and keeps it, by the time a real “green” leadership is in place to replace Harper in one or two elections, it’ll be far too late.

  26. Micael, Canadians are electing Harper again because they thing they can spend their money better than the government can. Harper’s been pretty clear about his approach and the people approve.

    He also believes that Canada is a federation, which it is. Different parts of the country can have different approaches to problems. So Quebecers don’t have to have the same legislative solutions on areas of jurisdiction that are in their purview. That helps to convince Quebec that they can be part of Canada but pursue their own solutions in there areas of legislative competence.

    That’s why sovereignty is way down now Michael.

  27. Jarrid, you’re right.

    I can definitely spend my money better than Mr. Flaherty can. For starters, I wouldn’t drain my savings before a recession.

  28. Jarrid,

    Grow up. Harper has been the government for 2-plus years. He is a rank amateur.

    You will vote for him because you too are naive.

    Stop believing fairy tales. Your hero has no clothes.

  29. And Jarrid, ponder this…

    “As you grow older you will find that day follows day and there does not seem much change in you, till suddenly you hear people talking of you as an old man. It is the same with an age in history; day follows day, and there does not seem to be much change, till all of a sudden it turns out that the age has become old. It is finished; it is passé.” – Leo Tolstoy

    The ideas you hold dear were in the bathroom when your guy became Prime Minister; they were flushed down the toilet last week.

  30. “When 70 to 80% of Canadians don’t want to vote for you, I guess the best strategy is to ask them to support you as a way to vote against the other guy…”

    Following in your footsteps then we can say 85 to 91% don’t want to vote for the Greens. How does that float your boat?”

    Great, let’s all vote Green to stop the Conservatives *and* the Liberals. I already promised the NDP incumbent in my riding my vote though, so you guys carry on without me.

  31. I checked with my wife.

    She says we can’t spend our money better than the gummint can.

    She got a hole-in-one today.

    She knows.

  32. It’s a fallacy to suggest that Harper’s election means that Canadians agree with his philosophy or particular policies. Only a third cast votes for his party, and many of those were due to fatigue with Liberal rule, not agreement with Conservative values. Hence the CPC wanting to appear to be governing as Liberals. They can’t govern like Conservatives because they’d be turfed (unless they get that handy majority they’re dying for).

  33. Michael Watkins argued “Here’s the real problem with Harper. He is systematically dismantling the ability of the federal government to do anything on a broad national scale by reducing its fiscal capacity. Every big tax cut and little tax give away whittles down Canada’s future ability – regardless of who is in power – to do anything meaningful.”

    Okay, so lets say some grand national project comes up that we just HAVE to HAVE. Why can’t we raise taxes then? Why are tax cuts irreversible? The funds Harper has devolved to the provinces are almost negligible – I believe he threw about 15 billion at the fiscal disequilibrium. Oh no the sky is falling. Anything that would actually transfer jurisdictional control would probably require a constitutional amendment, which I am sure Harper would just love to shoot for.

    What is Harper’s record on that front anyhow? Oh yeah… anti-Meech, pro-Clarity Act, pro-eliminating interprovincial trade barriers, and pro-defence spending (the one jurisdiction that will always be federal). He gets flack for not holding enough federal-provincial meetings – think, my dear fellow, with your head and not your heart.

    Moreover, you have no perspective. What – be specific – powers to you believe he is going to transfer? How much money is involved, and how does it compare to the MASSIVE INCREASE IN PROVINCIAL POWER IN THE 1960’s? What evidence do you have that he will do so? Even if the government transfers tax points, why can’t they just raise the taxes they do control to pay for some immensely useful grand national project?

    Conservatives get a lot of flack for not being the party of thinking men. I can take a punch, there are dumb Conservatives. But actually having to defend one’s positions can be good for the soul. So I ask those of you quaking in fear over the barbarians in the lobby (they broke through the gates in 2006) in hysterical tones, to actually defend your criticisms (and no an appeal to authority is not an argument – I don’t care that 150 economists signed a paper saying they liked Dion’s green shift, I’d wager you could find 150 professors of anything to endorse anything proposed by either of the two major parties. The key though is what is the argument – why does it work? What if economists generally favour the Liberals for reasons other than the soundness of their economic policies?*).

    *Eg. the federal government is one of the largest (if not the largest) employers of economists in Canada. Dion’s own (1997) book argues that under the Liberals are great for civil servants, increasing pay and civil service hiring at twice the rate** of the Conservatives).

    **And remember that with compounding the difference is of an order of magnitude.

  34. hoser: Why can’t we? Because when we need it, it’s too late. Since the conservatives have run a deficit for the six of the last seven months, should we actually need money in the kitty for something, say to bail out one of our own banks, or in case of natural disaster or something like that, the conservatives have drained the bank. The money simply isn’t there.

    That means they either borrow it, and we all pay the interest for it, or they just print it, as the US is doing, and run the risk of spiking inflation.

    Now, why is the green shift good policy? Because these market rumbles are short term. The growth and increasing energy demand of china and india is anything but. Unless we start working on energy saving technologies now, we’re going to be in competition with these rising tigers very soon, and their populations mean that even with a much lower GDP, they’ll be able to seriously impact the market prices for energy.

    So, we have a choice. We start learning to save energy now, with the Green Shift providing incentive to people and businesses not only to save, but to find new technologies and methods that can be sold to the chinese and indians to help curb their energy demands as well.

    Incidentally, this is also an example of a grand national project that if wait until we HAVE TO HAVE it, it’s too late because, technology takes time to develop.

  35. Or the other half of the choice: We wait, and when market prices shoot skyward, bitch and moan that our standard of living is dropping because we can’t afford to purchase our own energy and haven’t developed the technology or lifestyles that let us live on less.

    In short.. we’re already falling down the energy hole. We can either try to slow our fall, which have some painful effects as we do, or we can continue on as the “conservatives” would have us do, because hey, things seem fine right now.

    It’s not the fall that kills you though..
    ..it’s the sudden stop at the end.

  36. T. Thwim, as the country with either the largest or second largest hydrocarbon reserves on the planet, as energy prices rise, the precious government is swamped with revenue. Where do you think the massive surplusses of the last 8 years came from? Oil and gas. Nova Scotia has one offshore energy project, and it is the provincial governments third THIRD! largest revenue source. The federal government also gets a large piece of that pie. Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of energy, high market (not tax driven) energy costs increases Canada’s wealth. As China and India and the USA grow, they purchase our energy which transfers their peoples wealth to our people, and the more it costs, the more we get.

  37. I am a resident of Canada, but not a citizen and can’t vote. But, here is my tuppence anyway.

    It’s beyond me how any Canadian can consider wasting their vote on the Green Party when Dion is the Liberal leader.

    Please, good people of Canada, vote for the Liberals and rid yourself of Stephen Harper. He’s no better than a common gangster. Over the past few years, he and his cronies have been accused of:

    offering a financial bribe to a sitting Member of Parliament to change his vote

    deliberately perpetrating a fraudulent scheme to evade election financing laws while hypocritically campaigning to clean up government after the Liberals had used government funds to finance their 1997 and 2000 campaigns

    fixing the mayoral election in Ottawa, Canada’s capital

    I admit that the Liberals under Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister from 1993 to 2003, were corrupt and deserved their defeat in 2006. But, we have now replaced one corrupt regime with another just as rotten.

    Stephane Dion is a good man. His plan to introduce a carbon tax is the right thing to do.

    I should say that I myself am a small c conservative raised in Britain during the great days of Margaret Thatcher.

    Stephen Harper was and is an intelligent man and a good conservative. Sadly, he has turned out like Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. Anakin Harper came to Ottawa as a young man determined to combat the Liberals and set Canada on a free market path. He grudgingly grew to admire Chancellor Chretien’s wily ways of never getting caught and morphed into Darth Harper, a monster who cares only about wielding power and crushing his opponents.

  38. H2H, How ridiculously short-sighted do you have to be to think that “I shouldn’t strategic vote, because one vote doesn’t matter” and not think of the thousands (millions?) of other people making the same decision?

    That’s almost as dumb as using 4-chan lines like “oh noes” in a (theoretically) serious political discussion.

    Oh. Wait. “Style.” Right.

    (Well, at least now we know that Style is one of those ridiculous college Republicans who confuses his own swaddled comfort with the best interests of the grown-ups.)

  39. As for Dejong or whatever his name is, if he thinks his “unique political philosophy” is more important than actually choosing who the government will be, he deserves the obscurity he will undoubtedly receive.

  40. Demosthenes – thanks for the shout-out. I thought this was pretty good for a serious political discussion: “how ridiculously short-sighted do you have to be to think that “I shouldn’t strategic vote, because one vote doesn’t matter” and not think of the thousands (millions?) of other people making the same decision?”

    Just so it’s clear, are you saying that an individual’s voting decision somehow changes the voting decisions of thousands of others? That’s right up there with my very serious suggestion that we all agree to go vote Green.

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